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Revisiting Migration induced by Climate Change in India- A policy review

Updated: Dec 19, 2022

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed"

- Mahatma Gandhi


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1. Overview

Climate change effects on migration demonstrate an unprecedented predicament. As substantial portions of the globe become unusable as a result of environmental change, the number of people migrating might drastically increase. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in 1990 that "the largest single impact of climate change might be on human migration, with millions of people displaced by coastline erosion, coastal floods, and agricultural disruption." According to the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, by 2050, climate change would result in the permanent displacement of some 200 million people. With the Himalayas to its north, the Bay of Bengal to its east, and the Indian Ocean to its south, India is situated at a critical juncture. As they are extremely susceptible to changes in temperature and precipitation, these are a few of the hotspots in terms of future climate consequences.

This paper aims to analyse how environmental (climate) change affects migration across regions in India. We would examine the multifaceted drivers of migration in the context of climate change, controversies surrounding the definition of “climate refugees”, missing gaps in international laws and the policies of the Indian government. There is a renewed policy and media interest in the subject of climate migration, and policymakers are increasingly interested in adaptation as well as mitigation strategies to slow down the displacement due to climate change. Hence, in the final part, this paper sets out to provide specific policy recommendations to mitigate and respond to the issue of climate-related displacement.

2. Understanding the concept - Climate Migration

3. Importance of Climate in today's scenario

There is strong evidence that extreme weather events, increased rainfall unpredictability, and rising temperatures resulting from climate change would inevitably cause seasonal and long term migration in India due to livelihood and other concerns.

There are two main reasons why India should focus on and prepare for climate migration:

  • India is a huge nation with alarming levels of poverty. India has 270 million people living below the poverty line of $1.90/day (about ₹152 per day). A major portion of the country’s poor population belongs to rural areas, which are most vulnerable to climate-driven shocks due to their low adaptive capacity.

  • India being the largest refugee receiving nation in South Asia can expect an influx from other neighbouring nations like Bangladesh, Maldives etc. which are highly affected by climate change and rising sea levels. However, due to lack of a concrete law at the international level and national level immigration policy, India faces the complex challenge of handling climate refugee claims.

According to the State of India’s Environment Report 2022, India is the fourth most vulnerable nation in the world to experience one of the greatest rates of migration brought about by natural catastrophes, after China, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. Hence, it becomes increasingly important for India to take this issue on an ever more serious note.

4. Drivers of climate Migration in India

“The drivers of climate migration can be divided into two parts; climate processes such as sea-level rise, salinization of agricultural land, desertification and growing water scarcity, and climate events such as flooding, storms and glacial lake outburst floods etc.

Non-climate drivers such as government policy, population growth and community-level resilience to natural disasters also contribute to the degree of vulnerability experienced by people” (IOM, IPCC).

4.1. Climate change affects migration in three important ways:

  1. Decrease in agricultural productivity and loss of natural resources like clean water, fertile soil etc. due to sustained global warming

  2. Rising cases of extreme weather events, like droughts, heavy rainfall, flash floods etc. leading to mass displacement.

  3. Rising sea-levels can submerge extensive low-lying coastal areas, resulting in the permanent dislocation of large numbers of people.

4.2 The following migration drivers are affected by environmental changes either directly or indirectly:

4.3 Environmental change has a bearing on the following drivers of migration directly/indirectly:-

4.3.1 Economic - Environmental change can affect economic factors such as income, especially those of rural people, by reducing agricultural productivity, fisheries’ productivity, etc. For example, owing to gradual changes in rainfall patterns, there can be reduced outputs and incomes over long periods of time as rising temperatures adversely impact agriculture and increase the vulnerability of marginalized agriculture-dependent rural populations. Events like cyclones can result in the loss of livelihoods overnight. Thus, these economic factors caused as a result of climate change influence people’s decision to migrate. Ex: Cyclone Fani in Odisha in 2019 and Cyclone Amphan in West Bengal, 2020 caused huge economic losses. India is estimated to have suffered losses of almost USD 80 billion due to extreme climate events in the last two decades. (CEEW, 2021).

4.3.2 Social & Cultural - Climate change is directly related to social crisis in the sense that the vulnerable and marginalized groups are disproportionately affected, and it further exacerbates poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, and inequality. For example, climate change mitigation measures can place a higher burden on poorer sections of society; policy changes also end up altering the cultural fabric of indigenous communities. According to the Overseas Development Institute: “There could be up to 325 million extremely poor people living in the 49 countries most exposed to the full range of natural hazards and climate extremes in 2030.”

4.3.3 Demographic - It includes population size, density, population structure, and disease prevalence. There has been a rise in the number of people exposed to vector-borne (e.g., malaria) and water-borne (e.g., cholera) diseases due to changes in temperature and precipitation patterns owing to climate change. Studies show that warmer temperatures due to climate change accelerate diseases caused by pathogens. Higher temperatures also exacerbate outdoor air pollution such as ozone. Also, there has been an increase in heat stress mortality due to extreme heat waves owing to climate change, especially in northern parts of India. A large influx of migrants can further amplify the effect of heatwaves in the already densely populated megacities like Delhi.

4.3.4 Political- It includes discrimination or persecution, conflict, levels of security and policy incentives. For example, the scarcity of essential resources such as water, food, etc. can exacerbate conflicts amongst people. Climate indirectly leads to conflict by reducing economic output and agricultural incomes, raising food prices, and increasing migration flows. According to a January 2019 research paper published in the journal Global Environmental Change, during 2011-2015, climatic changes like severe drought conditions led to armed conflict, which, in turn, led to asylum seeking and migration. Also, the inability of a government to provide for its people after a natural disaster could lead to protests against the government.

4.3.5 Environmental- It includes exposure to hazards and land productivity, habitability, food/energy/water security etc. For example, rising temperatures, extreme weather events, rising sea levels, degradation of ecosystems, reduced food yield and water insecurity, ocean acidification, desertification, salinization etc. drive changes that directly lead to migration of people.

5. State-wise Trends in India

India is the seventh-most vulnerable country with respect to climate extremes (Germanwatch 2020). An analysis by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) suggests that three out of four districts in India are extreme event hotspots, with 40 per cent of the districts exhibiting a swapping trend, i.e., traditionally flood-prone areas are witnessing more frequent and intense droughts and vice-versa. (CEEW, 2021).

According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), at 2.678 million people, India had the highest number of people displaced by disasters and extreme weather events in 2018. According to estimates, over 40 million people were compelled to migrate in 2020, with 30.7 million of those individuals moving as a result of climate-related catastrophes such as droughts, floods, cyclones, landslides, severe temperatures, storms, and other associated phenomena (State of India’s Environment Report, 2022). Approximately 70% of respondents in another independent report that surveyed 1000 households, primarily in rural areas of the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan, stated that they had migrated right away in the wake of a catastrophe (Institute for Environment and Development, IIED 2021).

6. Climate Vulnerability Index (CVI), India- Key Findings

(In terms of extreme hydro-met disasters)

Climate Vulnerability Assessment for Adaptation Planning in India Using a Common Framework

Department of Science & Technology- Govt. of India

Using data on degree of vulnerability from Govt. of India, and estimated adaptive capacity of states from the earlier map, we have created a 2*2 matrix using the above table. On the x-axis, we have plotted the degree of vulnerability of the various states to climate change ranging from 0.4 to 0.7. On the y-axis, we have plotted the adaptive capacity of states to climate change ranging from 0-100. Using the given two data points, we have constructed the four quadrants. The bottom-right quadrant is the one that needs to be prioritized as the states falling into this quadrant are high on vulnerability and low on adaptive capacity. For the purpose of this exercise, we have assumed that the adaptive capacity of states ranges from 0-100. Also, we have given numbers to the states based on estimation using the map showing adaptive capacity (Down to Earth) above.

The government must focus on states falling in the bottom-right quadrant by encouraging the respective states to make policy changes and also tailor the existing national level schemes to aid in the process. Furthermore, historical data and trends can be analyzed to find out which states face out-migration and which states turn out to be the destination states. This can allow the government to come up with specific migrant-friendly policies in the destination states and resilience and capacity building programmes in the origin states.

By encouraging the corresponding states to adjust their policies and by modifying the current national level programmes to support the process, the government must concentrate on the states that are located in the bottom-right quadrant. Historical data and patterns may also be examined to determine which states experience out-migration and which states end up being the destination states. As a result, the government may be able to develop targeted migrant-friendly policies in the states of destination and resilience and capacity development programmes in the states of origin.

7. Government Policies and Legislations- India

According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, India was the seventh most affected by the devastating impact of climate change globally in 2019. However:

  • India lacks specific legislation to address the problem of refugees, including climate refugees

  • India is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the key legal instruments pertaining to refugee protection.

  • The Foreigners Act, 1946, fails to address the peculiar problems faced by refugees as a class.

India has not yet framed a law on refugees because of concerns related to illegal migration, misuse of the law and scope of maneuver. In spite of a lack of national level refugee policy, existence of National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and entitlement to the rights in Articles 14 (Right to Equality ), 20 (Protection with Respect to Conviction of Offences) and 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution to refugees clearly show that India has a moral tradition of assimilating foreign people and culture.

Due to uneven monsoon, extreme climate change related weather events and possibility of attracting huge influx of climate migrants due to being in close proximity to Bangladesh and other climate vulnerable nations, there is an urgent need for India to come up with its own “climate refugee framework/policy” at the national level.

8. Policy Recommendations

Climate change exacerbates existing environmental, economic and social vulnerabilities. Adaptation to climate change needs to be at a broader level and must be looked at together with the local context. Hence, a holistic policy approach is needed to tackle the multidimensional nature of human movement in response to environmental change. Following are the policy recommendations to tackle the issue of climate migration at length:

8. 1 Long Term planning and resilience building

  • India should use focused planning, which should be topographically, climatically, and based on zone-specific information. For example- The homes in West Bengal and Odisha should be robust enough to withstand winds of 200 km per hour or more as they are more prone to cyclones. To prevent disasters in India that are peculiar to a given location or climatic zone, infrastructure must be climate-proofed.(CEEW)

  • Improved education and vocational training (e.g. in nursing, teaching, English language), as well as cultural acclimatization training could be provided to vulnerable groups to make them independent in case they are forced to migrate.

  • To curtail the adverse impacts of climate change and strengthen community resilience, climate-smart(resilient) measures could be adopted like adaptive water and crop management (for example, stress-tolerant varieties, crop rotation) and enhancing food security and livelihoods.

  • In the long run, there should be a sustained transition toward livelihoods that are not climate dependent.

  • Good emergency planning can be done to mitigate the wet and dry extremes including swapping trends of India’s changing climate. Planning is essential and long term schemes need to be formulated.

8.2 Collaboration and knowledge dissemination

  • An umbrella programme to collect data on migration from all states and regions of the country, including information on the extreme occurrences that drove people to move from one area to another could be created at the national level. This can be complemented by creating a National level “Migration Data Portal”, which should be interlinked with states, departments, ministries, and CSO/Govt agencies for effective transfer of subsidies, benefits and to formulate targeted policies.

  • Apart from the internal stakeholder convergence, India should strive for collaboration at the international and regional level. Policy should be designed to foster understanding and cooperation with the neighbouring countries. There is no recognition yet for climate-migrants to be given refugee status and the human rights of such people must be recognised. At the global level, India should develop better communication and collaboration with the various environmental and migration organizations like- UNHCR, UNDRR, UNDP, IOM etc. At the regional level, India can use BIMSTEC, SAARC etc. for effective policy agreements on the issue of climate migration.

8.3 Adaptation and mitigation strategies

  • Strong adaptation policies can be developed by looking at existing measures and international best practices, for example- the EU funded project to help Pacific island countries manage the impacts of climate change on migration.

  • Local knowledge must also be taken into account through consultations with affected communities on how the process could be best designed to work for them.

  • There is a need to distinguish between non-vulnerable and vulnerable sections of people. While devising policies for climate mitigation and adaptation, special focus should be given to the vulnerable sections of the population while avoiding in-situ(containment) measures as it risks people being confined and even more vulnerable in case of failure of measures.

  • Services which are important for the sustenance of the migrants, such as healthcare, housing and education needs to be made accessible at destinations, along with the existing social security initiatives of the government like ration card portability and assistance programmes like PDS/TPDS. Finally, the process does not end once people have moved. They should be supported financially to restore and improve their livelihoods and incomes.

8.4 Standardization and policy level measures

  • The first thing that India needs to do is to come up with a “climate refugee framework/policy” at the national level. Considering the expected influx of climate refugees from neighbouring nations in the upcoming years, the framework must provide due rights of settlement and rehabilitation and at the same time ensure the rights of indigenous people over the land and resources in order to avoid future conflicts. State specific policy level interventions can be devised especially for the states that have a high degree of vulnerability due to climate change and low adaptive capacity.

  • The next step could be to streamline the National Adaptation Plans (NAP’S) and National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) to incorporate early warning systems, shared environmental resources and link it with the “climate refugee policy” and human mobility issues in the country. These could be funded by the developed nations through various climate funds such as Green Climate Fund, Adaptation Fund, Special Climate Change Fund, Least Developed Countries Fund etc.

  • At the global level, an expanded definition of refugees to include climate migrants along with international recognition can lead to widespread benefits for the vulnerable population. India could pitch the idea of modifying the International Covenants to urge the greenhouse gas emitters to take allocation of the climate migrants in proportion to their historical emissions.

9. Way Forward

To summarize this policy paper, we would like to propose the following course of action to tackle the issue of climate migration in the current scenario;

  1. The central government of India should develop an overarching strategy that gives states the freedom to plan and provide assistance that will address the needs of migrants along with their social security and wellness.

  2. India needs to create a migration data platform at the national and state levels, which would help decision-makers with planning welfare programmes, mapping, and growth projections. This information may be used by CSO’s, the government, and research organizations to support and to provide employment opportunities on a larger scale.

  3. Increase the number of assistance programmes available, such as the percentage of PDS/TPDS rations accessible to migrants and their families.

  4. Government, CSOs, and CSR must come together in PPP more and disseminate information about new and existing national and state-level programmes, policies, and schemes in order to promote awareness about climate change and climate migration. In order to rank the states and foster a culture of competitiveness, the NITI Aayog may also step forward.

Meet the Thought Leaders

Karan Patel (he/him) is a mentor at GGI an undergraduate from IIT Madras. He is correctly employed with Teachmint, an ed-tech start-up in their strategy team. Prior to Teachmint, he worked at Dalberg Advisors as an analyst where he worked with multi-laterals and international foundations on gender, education and energy sectors. He has also interned in MIT Sloan, Qualcomm and IIM Ahmedabad giving him a plethora of experience in the corporate and academic world. He also started his own venture in hyperlocal air-quality monitoring. Karan is an avid sport-person and masala chai fantatic.


Meet The Authors (GGI Fellows)

Gaurav Sahni, GGI Impact Fellow 2022.

He has completed UG from the University of Delhi in Geography Hons. & PG in GIS and Remote Sensing. He has 4+ years of interdisciplinary experience in the domain of rural development & research. He has worked with Gram Vikas, SBI Youth for India, BAIF, ISRO, JSAC, & others. He has worked on UNDP, UNFCCC, Govt. of India, State, CSR/Foreign projects like the 1000 Springs Initiative. He lives a sustainable life and always challenges the status quo to upskill and learn.

Prerna Kumari has completed her Masters Degree in Commerce from DSE and Bachelors Degree in Commerce from SRCC.

Prerna is an ambitious and versatile individual authentically working as a Co-Chair at the Office of Career Services at GGI to add value and build credible networks and interested in learning new skills and contributing towards making a positive impact to society and businesses.

If you are interested in applying to GGI's Impact Fellowship program, you can access our application link here.



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  10., accessed 15 April 2007

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